Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Thirteen Ways of Looking At a Tragedy: Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

Two weeks after Hannah Baker commits suicide, her classmate and one-time crush Clay Jensen receives a box of cassette tapes in the mail, tapes Hannah sent out the day she died. Clay puts in the first tape, and hears Hannah's voice:

"I hope you're ready because I'm about to tell you the story of my life. More specifically, why my life ended And if you're listening to these tapes, you're one of the reasons why."

Hannah goes on to give two instructions: everyone has to listen, and everyone has to pass the tapes on to the next person on the list. "Hopefully," she adds, "neither one will be easy for you."

And it isn't.

Hannah unfolds a series of slights and betrayals, each one more serious and troubling than the last, and each implicating another person in Hannah's death.

Although the haunting premise might lead the reader to expect a mystery, the story stays firmly rooted in the world of high school.

It's a story about how Hannah perceived those slights, disappointments, and betrayals, which probably didn't mean much to their perpetrators, and how they affected her. But more than anything, it's a story about the dark, tunnel-vision world of a suicidal person who doesn't want to be rescued -- or doesn't believe she can be. Hannah doesn't kill herself to teach anyone a lesson, or expose any hidden scandal. Hannah kills herself because she wants to die.

In the book, it's easy to look at the incidents Hannah pinpoints as those that led to her suicide and think of people you know who have moved past worse. And it's easy to let many of Hannah's friends and classmates off the hook. They couldn't have known, so they couldn't have helped. However, that's not the point.

By incorporating Hannah's voice, Asher examines a suicidal person's frame of mind, and the ways that isolated incidents matter, as well as the ways that they don't. Asher also turns this premise into a way of exploring the guilt and remorse of those impacted by a friend or family member's suicide, with Hannah's tapes pointing towards a common survivors' experience -- what was the moment, the missed opportunity, when you could have made that person change their mind?

The approach is a daring one, and it usually works, though at times the conceit of the tapes glamorizes teen suicide more than I'm sure Asher intended. However, Thirteen Reasons Why is a haunting and thought-provoking book, tightly written and difficult to put down.

No comments: